How do you know if your work is any good? There are poetry workshops, of course, but workshop poets are poets, not critics. You wonder if they like your poems because they like you, or more troubling, they like your poems because they want you to like theirs back. Some workshops prohibit negative comments altogether. That may be great for fostering a creative atmosphere, but praise given when nothing but praise is allowed can feel pretty faint.
Book sales should be the ultimate test, but for most poets, a sale is a “far-from-daily” event. Even the most popular poets fall far short of celebrity. If you want to sell a lot of books, don’t write poetry.
The real test for a writer is to connect with a reader the poet doesn’t know. For the poet writing in Boston, the best audience consists of readers living in Austin, Evanston, and Timbuktu. Those far-off readers have no connection to your work but the words on the page. If they are moved by what they read, then you’ve written something good.
Kirkus Reviews provided just the kind of challenge I wanted: a reader that was unbiased, professional, and at liberty to criticize as well as praise. For the Kirkus reviewer, my work would have to stand on its own. I couldn’t be there to interpret the poems. I couldn’t read one aloud, inserting a dramatic pause at just the right place. I couldn’t point out the subtle connection between this poem and that. Win or lose, sink or swim, there was no more I could do. Nothing would speak for my work but the words themselves. What was written was written. It would have to fend for itself.
I put a link to the starred review on my website. I mentioned it in an interview. I shared it with my Facebook friends. But that’s just PR. The star I earned from Kirkus Reviews affirmed the quality of my work. That’s everything.
Joel’s first book of poetry, Where Inches Seem Miles, was published by Antrim House Books in the fall of 2013. His poems have been published in Blackbird, Salamander, Gray Sparrow, Rattle, and other journals. He is a member of the Concord Poetry Center and has attended the Colrain Manuscript Conference. He contributes regularly to Verse-Virtual, an online community journal of poetry.